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As Civil War Winds Down, Guatemala Gears Up to Fight Crime

December 2, 1996

AGUACATAN, Guatemala (AP) _ Central America’s longest insurgency is winding down, but Guatemalans say another war is just beginning: A war against crime.

These days, assaults, ransom kidnappings and banditry create as many headlines as word of the final peace accord between leftist rebels and the government, set to be signed Dec. 29.

``What kind of peace will follow the peace?″ asks Carolina Fabiola Perez, a 24-year-old teacher worried about her three children.

As the last of some 275,000 pro-government militiamen laid down their weapons across Guatemala on Sunday, Aguacatan’s mayor said crime has replaced the leftist guerrilla threat.

Addressing dozens of militiamen who disarmed on a soccer field, Mayor Jose Solis Velazquez said his city of 42,000 in western Guatemala now must fight the bandits and youth gangs that have made the Cuchumatanes mountains unsafe.

The ceremony in Aguacatan, 75 miles west of the capital, was marked by firecrackers and festive marimba music as Maya Indian peasants in dusty sombreros handed in their aged rifles, ending 15 years of civilian defense patrols against leftist rebels.

The militias, formed in 1981, had been the eyes, ears and often the executioners for the army in the mountains. Militiamen were widely criticized for human rights abuses, but they were hailed Sunday by military officials as patriots who staved off a guerrilla threat.

The signing of a permanent cease-fire is scheduled for Wednesday in Oslo, Norway. Government and rebel leaders will meet there today to finalize the pact and both sides seemed confident it would be signed.

``It’s almost finished but we still have work to do,″ said Jorge Rosal, a European representative for the rebels’ Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity.

Though the cease-fire in the 36-year war that has claimed 140,000 lives is important, Guatemalans interviewed wondered if the government is strong enough to give them peace against crime.

President Alvaro Arzu, upon taking office Jan. 14, promised 5,000 new police but there seems little dent in crime, with kidnappings and car thefts rampant and at least eight murders a day.

``What peace? There’s just too much crime,″ scoffed Guatemala City housewife Tersa Rivera, 43, who was in Agaucatan visiting relatives Sunday.

The capital’s crime problem is the most severe: Many residents head home early at night and worried parents hold tots tight in buses and markets.

A Guatemalan newsmagazine devoted a cover story this year to booming sales of stun guns, guard dogs, car alarms and shop gates.

One kidnapping briefly halted the peace talks in late October: the 84-year-old wife of a prominent businessman was seized by gunmen who even had a wheelchair for the frail victim, who was freed unharmed.

The abduction was blamed on a rogue rebel commander, whose act was disowned by the left and the talks resumed.

Even seemingly idyllic hamlets such as Santa Maria de Jesus are not immune: Yellow buses, rooftops heaped with baskets of corn, chug up the dirt road carrying Indians in brightly colored traditional dress.

It looks postcard perfect, right down to barefoot girls singing Sunday school refrains, including ``Happy my Lord, Because You Give Us Peace!″ and boys flying red and blue kites up to lofty green volcanoes.

But the tranquility is marred by scrawls on walls in black and red that read ``Maras″ _ a reference to violent gangs.

Jose Pedro Paramos, 71, sat on the steps of the old stone cathedral in Santa Maria de Jesus at sunset and told how he no longer felt safe after nightfall.

``I used to be able to walk down the roads at one o’clock in the morning. Now no one respects your life anymore,″ he said, adding that the guerrillas never harmed him.

Of the gangs, he shrugged and said: ``Just wait until nightfall. They’ll be out.″

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